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Manatee death rate is highest on record

The strawberries have returned and the orange trees have been salvaged, but for a number of manatees, the frigid Christmas freeze was just too cold to survive. Some of the endangered sea mammals died in record numbers during the cold weeks of December and early January, a report from the state Department of Natural Resources shows. For many manatees, death came as a result of slow starvation or hypothermia.

"We've never observed a die-off this big," said Dr. Bruce Ackerman, a marine biologist with the state.

Two manatees died in the Tampa Bay area. But most of the deaths occurred in the large, shallow basins near Indian River in Broward County.

On the North Suncoast, one manatee death in Citrus County has been attributed to the freeze.

Ackerman credited the warm canal near Tampa Electric Co. in Apollo Beach in Hillsborough County with helping many manatees to survive. He said the deep canal, which is heated by the company's discharge pipe, provided warmth for dozens of manatees.

About 57 manatees died from exposure to cold and related illnesses in December and January. Another 10 manatees died of unknown causes, but Ackerman speculated the deaths were due to the cold.

Since December, 91 manatees have died or been killed. Ackerman said it was the worst death rate since biologists began tracking manatees in 1974. The deaths account for about 8 percent of the entire population, which is approximately 1,200 nationwide.

Now, the Apollo Beach canal is largely empty. With the unseasonably warm weather, only about three manatees remain, floating along and bobbing to the surface for air. But even if cold weather strikes again, Ackerman said most manatees still live near the shoreline and warmer water.

"At most, they are a 12-hour swim away," he said.